No. 16 Cal returns home for matchups against ASU, Arizona

Maya Valluru/Staff

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Last season, Cal volleyball turned heads at UC Berkeley. The 2018 team proved that it could hang with the big dogs as the Bears took on the very best of the Pac-12. The Bears’ multiple 3-2 losses were viewed as huge accomplishments for the program, and they were at the time.

But this season, Cal is turning heads across the nation. The Bears are 13-1 on the season with a strong 3-1 conference record to validate Cal’s early found success. Led by new head coach Sam Crosson and returning associate head coach Jennifer Dorr, the No. 16 Bears sit atop the Pac-12 standings after finishing the 2018 season 10th in the conference.

This weekend, Cal was set to host the best the desert land has to offer, with both Arizona and ASU coming to UC Berkeley, but the Bay Area power outage is causing Cal’s Friday match to be relocated to Stanford’s Maples Pavilion.

“I expect our team to approach this weekend how we have every weekend,” Crosson said. “We’ll go through our normal routine, get to scouting and looking at film.”

Cal’s first match of the weekend will be against Arizona State, who the Bears lost to in one of their infamous 3-2 battles last year. The Sun Devils (10-5, 2-2) don’t boast a record quite as nice as the Bears’ and both of their conference losses were sweeps, but the Bears will treat each match as they have every other.

A big positive force for the Sun Devils will be senior Courtney Leffel, who leads the conference in digs and is second in digs per set in the Pac-12. Such a strong defense will be needed against the Bears.

Running a 6-2 rotation, Cal allows itself an extra hitter at the net. Working redshirt sophomore Lauren Forte into the lineup prompted redshirt senior Savannah Rennie to slide over to the right side, but Rennie continues to be one of the Bears’ most powerful hitters. Both middle blockers, Forte and junior Preslie Anderson have been incredibly effective on the blocking and hitting fronts.

Anderson, in particular, is the Bears’ shining star. Currently No. 4 in the nation in hitting percentage, Anderson brings consistency out of the middle that allows for a less predictable Cal offense, with reliable options across the net.

“I love her energy, her spirit, her volleyball IQ,” Crosson said. “She makes a lot of good plays out of mediocre opportunities at times. She’s someone the team looks to as a solid, foundational leader on the court. You love being able to coach players like her because they’re just hungry to go out, learn and get better and play as hard as they can.”

On top of these attackers, Cal’s other outside hitters found great success in their perfect weekend in Oregon, where the squad swept both OSU and Oregon last week.

While Cal and ASU go head to head Friday night at 5 p.m., Arizona plays No. 2 Stanford directly afterward. The Wildcats and Bears will then come to Haas Pavilion on Sunday afternoon. The Bears, once again, narrowly lost last year’s match 3-2 to the Wildcats in Tucson.

Arizona returns middle blocker Devyn Cross, who leads the nation with her .512 hitting percentage. The senior is coming off a win over Colorado that was made possible by her 14 error-free attacks. Cross ended that game with an astounding .643 hitting percentage, which, believe it or not, was not a season-high.

Yet Cross’s talent and ability at the net can only go so far without the full support of her team. Arizona is currently suffering injuries in two key players — libero Kamaile Hiapo and middle blocker Shardonee Hayes — making a win over Cal seem less likely.

While the Wildcats started nonconference play strong, Arizona began its Pac-12 season with a 0-3 start, taking injuries and losses side by side. Yet the home sweep over Colorado could signal a fresh start to the Wildcats’ season.

The Cal volleyball program hasn’t been ranked in the top 25, let alone the top 16, since 2013. And by the looks of it, there’s no reason Cal won’t continue plowing through its opponents. This weekend, like any other, will be an opportunity for the Bears to continue growing and playing even better than their last performance.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.